By 14th January 2019Article

The fog covering the management of culture continues to linger and wrap leaders in uncertainty. Earlier this year, I wrote optimistically on the concept of a Healthy Culture and alluded to the work coordinated by the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) in the UK. And so, after a lull, the FCA recently held a video conference on culture, specifically considering the impact of ‘psychological safety’. This was formed on the basis of a panel discussion, attended by three experts: a psychologist; a former whistle blower turned consultant and a behavioural economist. The regulator facilitated the discussion. 

The general belief underlying psychological safety is as follows: people within organisations are afraid to raise and tackle problems.  As a consequence, problems are ignored, un-remediated and can detrimentally impact conduct, business performance, reputation etc. In summary: ignoring problems is bad news and can grow out of proportion. If you have ever seen Jordan Peterson’s lecture on the Ignoring Dragons, then I recommend you do  In its child simplicity it illustrates what happens to problems that are ignored: they get bigger!

To grossly simplify the FCAs panel discussion: the psychologist discussed building resilience to deal with anxiety; the whistle blower talked about status and power; and the behavioural economist talked about engineering micro-moments or small nudges within the employee day to day experience. All good so far, and to ensure behaviours were being effectively role modelled, the level of psychological safety during the panel discussion was akin to a kids soft play centre.   

So, let’s dial this discussion up and set out why the concept of psychological safety is serious. I found this TED talk by Margaret Heffernan – dare to disagree

Listen to this and try and tell me you don’t have more fire in your belly about this topic. For 25 years we knew we were killing babies because we were ignoring a problem. The blindness of experts led to a catastrophic failure in judgement. One can easily appreciate the conceptual cross over from the health sector to financial services. Understand why this concept is important?

Now, let’s think more about causation. In our work with clients regarding group dynamics we simulate group forming situations to rapidly produce high levels of anxiety. We observe the processes at play and work with our clients to make sense of what is going on.

Being in a group causes anxiety for human beings and one pervasive symptom that manifests itself within groups is the propensity to avoid this anxiety at all costs. In a recent experience with a client, this group instinct to flee and avoid anxiety led to tuning out of all forms of challenge, debate and disagreement. Decision making became breathtakingly expedient and shallow. In order to avoid this anxiety, the group focussed entirely on task and not the dynamics at play. The group, as a consequence, on the surface become psychologically safe and sound, although the organisational ramifications were far from safe! Solutions to problems were agreed on the basis of anxiety reduction; NOT on merit. Spot the problem of having a problem?

We, therefore help our clients to understand the importance of processes that go on within groups and to identify them when they are experienced. For example: what are we not saying? What is being avoided, and what anxiety is being defended against? Are we coming up with a solution to make ourselves feel better? How can we embrace the concept of a ‘good fight’? How can we deliberately inject diversity of perspective? Stimulate conflict? Develop the skills and confidence to stand up to others? And, as a consequence, enabling the group to feel confident and competent to manage conflict and find the most appropriate solution for the problem at hand.

Finally, the FCA panel discussion referenced briefly the work by Amy Edmondson on ‘psychological safety’ It is interesting in a number of ways, but I wanted to highlight one model in particular. It did not look at psychological safety as a singular spectrum but contextualised it in reference to ‘Demanding Goals’ (achievement, motivation and accountability).

I like it because it doesn’t suggest the removal of ‘psychological safety’ in itself is a good idea. However, I really like it because it contextualises psychological safety against an inspiring organisational ‘purpose’(I’ve taken some poetic licence in translating ‘Demanding Goals’ to a Blacklight term: Purpose). That’s why in our systematic and holistic approach to ‘Purposeful Organisation Designs’ (PODs); we identify a compelling ‘Purpose’; design group Processes; and build competencies and confidence for People to be themselves. Yes! These are Goshal’s 3Ps: Purpose; Process, People! And yes, we are installing the ability to not to ignore dragons into the very fabric of how organisations work.